James Santos Runs Away With the Cirque

This month, my friend and Dance Project Artistic Director James Santos will move away from Redding for the second time in his life. He’s taking a position as artistic assistant with the world-renowned entertainment company, Cirque du Soleil. I talked to James about his new adventure, the current North State “state of the arts,” and what his kids think about their globe-trotting Dad.

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So, James, what made you decide to join Cirque du Soleil?

I have always respected the size of their productions, company and mission. With almost 5,000 employees and 22 shows around the world, they are one of the largest entertainment companies in the world. The side most of us do not know is the heart of their company. They nurture their employees, encourage you to grow and are truly interested in you as a person. My interviews with Cirque started in April. During this process, I learned that the people were all so kind, really wanted to see if I fit into their organization and then took the time to see where I would fit best. Guy Laliberte, Cirque du Soleil’s founder, started the “One Drop,” which fights poverty by providing access to water and sanitation in developing countries.

Tell us a bit about your new job.

I will be the Artistic Assistant on the show “Dralion,” Cirque du Soleil’s 12th touring show. I start rehearsals on October 13 in Charlotte, NC. The show opens in Trenton, NJ on October 20.

My job is to assist the artistic team and artistic activity and help ensure that the show meets and maintains the high standards established at its creation with regard to artistic and acrobatic performance, staging, choreography, musical score, costumes, lighting, sound, and make-up. I’ll provide feedback, take notes and check in with coaches, integrate new performers or acts into the shows and prepare artists for media events. There is so much it boggles my mind.

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It sounds like an amazing adventure, but who is at the helm of The Dance Project once you leave?

Our company has been preparing for this all summer. We split my numerous jobs up among people that have been around the longest and would suit them best. Most of the artistic elements for the new Cascade Christmas were decided a month ago. I am hammering out the new choreography and direction like a waterfall the past two weeks, trying to finish as much as possible before I leave.

The artistic team is: Artistic Coordinators Marissa Kinneavy and Tiffany Rodrigues, who will finish any re-staging from last year’s show and also conduct regular rehearsals of the company production, Cindy Sumsion, the show quality manager and costume designer, and Jana Leard, the new Dance Project general manager.

In addition, there are a few in the show who have been around for years and understand my original vision. I know I can trust this group, but it is no easy job. I will pray for them. When things get crazy I will be in touch with them through Skype and email. I’ll return the week of opening to help with the final touches.

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Your own dance company was a natural evolution, but a Christmas show? How did A Cascade Christmas come to be?

In 1999 I performed within the Radio City Christmas Spectacular with the Rockettes and had the best time. I worked the hardest I have ever worked, but really enjoyed the Christmas environment. I thought someday I would love to do something like this and create it myself.

In 2004, I was back in Redding. The Cascade Theatre opened and we entertained at a number of fundraisers and then the pre-show for the Cascade’s grand opening. It was twenty minutes long. We had no backdrops and costumes from our closets. A $365 donation got the girls their Santa suits and everything else was donated. People loved it, so, I started brainstorming. It has grown bigger and bigger every year and we are forced to get more organized and creative every year.

You’ve flexed your artistic muscles the last few years with spring shows. How did that feel?

The spring show has always been a challenge. Most dance companies rely on their holiday show to support them through the year, but we have not always had that luxury. A spring show was really an opportunity for the dancers to show their off their other talents, a way to keep people around more of the year and do something besides the holiday cheese that I love so much.

My plan was to grow that show into a spring-version revue like the Christmas show, and I thought people would come to both. Not the case. So, I tried a few musicals. One of them was “Once on this Island.” No one knew the name, so no one came. “Swing” was well attended but cost an arm and a leg for musicians and licensing. Most of the performers were left with nothing in return and I feel that artists should be compensated for their efforts.

I tried once again with a spring revue, “Exposed – A Celebration of Dance.” Apparently people thought we were going to be naked. That year, 2008, we almost closed our company down. It was actually a great experience for us. We had to learn what the company meant to all of us and most importantly, how to ask for money. At this year’s spring show, “Steppin Out,” attendance was up. Next year we will perform “Sound of Music.” I helped cast it and it is going to be a great show.

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You were home-grown, right here in Redding. So, what stole James Santos from Redding the first time?

My dream and my passion for musical theatre and dance. I had to pursure my dreams of singing and dancing in New York and all over the country. I was encouraged by many people here in Redding to go forward. I never wanted to look back and say I did not try.

And what brought you back?

My intuition? A message from God? I am not sure, but once my heart heard the message I felt as if a bomb had been dropped right in front of me. It was loud! We were living in New York. Brian (partner, Brian Catanio) had a great job and I had a contract at The Met Opera, but I just knew it was right. Our stuff was in a moving truck and we were flying home within three weeks of that decision.

What was it about the artistic climate that made you feel a dance company would work?

Artistic climate? That’s funny. Redding, to many of us who grew up here, has always been quite cool, but that’s changed. It’s just slower than other areas. I never thought a dance company would work and I still would not classify The Dance Project as a typical dance company. We are more of an entertainment company. I don’t think a dance company would survive here, if it is only giving the community “dance.”

The Dance Project has almost 10,000 people a year come to our Christmas show, but the spring show attendance drops to under 4,000 people. To me, this is an indication that there is not enough interest in what a ballet company or contemporary company’s repertoire would include.

Most of the time dance company shows are bare bones, so if someone thinks they are going to survive as a professional company, be able to pay their members and put on shows where the community will be supportive, I would suggest an area other than Redding.

What do you think needs to happen for the North State to maximize its creative potential?

It would be nice if some of our professional businesses or fundraising folks were more involved in artistic organizations. The arts groups do not need more artists. There is already a strong group of artists involved with the arts. Also, the general public needs to understand that we must pay our local artists and get into the frame of mind that things can change and be bigger if you believe in them.

Two years ago, I could barely see straight. Money was tight at home and I was asking for money for the dance company. I wasn’t making any money for all of the work I did. It just felt so strange. At that time, it was hard for me to believe in what I was doing. I was more concerned about letting down our community and the company members than about paying my bills. I had to find a new focus.

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What do Brian and the kids think of your new adventure?

Brian and I are best friends and over the past 11 years have learned so much about having a positive relationship, and allowing each other to grow and change. We support one another in all that we do and are teaching the kids the same thing. This move is one that will benefit our entire family. Yes, the short term reality is that I will be on the road 10 weeks at a time, but they will be coming out on the road for a few weeks at a time. Someday, we may make the decision to all go on the road. Crazy, right?

We were able to spend the summer in Florida for two months this year and it was just our little family being weird and crazy together. I loved it. I learned that I always want my kids to know that we are here for them, that they have us to come to for questions about life and also that they can depend on us to show them the world, share new cultures, colors and experiences.

If I begged and pleaded and promised you anything, what would make you stay?

If Cirque was opening a resident show in Redding.

What will you miss most?

So many things. The immediate loss will be my family, not waking up with the kids every day, not being there for Brian when he needs to escape, as we both do now sometimes. I will miss my friends, and of course, all the exciting traditions we have created around the Cascade Christmas show. It will be strange not to be here through the entire process. Maybe I will come back with some fresh eyes and enjoy it like other people are able to.

Redding is one of the most beautiful places around and it will always feel like home to me no matter where my travels lead me.

Click HERE to learn more about James’ new Cirque du Soleil adventure, “Dralion.”


Adam Mankoski is a recent North State transplant who feels completely at home here. He enjoys experiencing and writing about the people, places and things that embody the free spirit of the State of Jefferson. He and his partner own HawkMan Studios and are the creators of Redding’s 2nd Saturday ArtHop. Email your NorthState weekend events to adamm.anewscafe@gmail.com.

This portrait of Adam Mankoski was created by Shasta High School students Chance Norman and Kenzi Bell.

A News Cafe, founded in Shasta County by Redding, CA journalist Doni Greenberg, is the place for people craving local Northern California news, commentary, food, arts and entertainment.

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is a recent North State transplant who feels completely at home here. He enjoys experiencing and writing about the people, places and things that embody the free spirit of the State of Jefferson. He and his partner are the owners of HawkMan Studios and the creators of Redding’s 2nd Saturday Art Hop.
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